Film Flops I Have Seen (4)

You can enjoy a film whilst at the same time realising it has flaws, and is definitely not a ‘great’ film. During the 1990s, it seemed that many film studios were convinced that stuffing a cast with big-name stars was enough.
A decent story and credible plot helped, but was not necessarily a requirement.

When I read about a new film starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jnr, and Donald Sutherland, my interest was piqued. I had seen all three in some memorable roles, and the casting of all of them in one film looked like a recipe for success. So I went to see ‘Instinct’, in 1999.

If you don’t know the film, it is about a man (Hopkins) who has been living in Africa, and studying gorillas. He went so far as to be accepted by the gorilla family, and when it was attacked by poachers, he killed some of the men responsible. When it turns out that the men were apparently Park Rangers, he is arrested for murder.

A psychiatrist (Gooding) becomes very interested in the case, and the strange jungle man is given his day in court.

This is a film that deals with mankind’s treatment of animals, and various issues surrounding our understanding of wildlife. It delves into the reasons behind why someone would choose to live along in a jungle, and how different the modern world is when he emerges. Or is it? Has he replaced one cruel jungle with another?

I will say no more about the film, to avoid spoilers.

And this post is about why it lost a small fortune.

I quite enjoyed it. Hopkins overplayed his role, something he is prone to do. But that didn’t spoil it for me. Some of the characters are very sympathetic, others less so. That is to be expected. If it tried to make a point about human encroachment on animal species, it succeeded. But that wasn’t exactly ‘breaking news’ in 1999.

The critics were unimpressed. Lukewarm reviews, and audiences waiting for it to turn up on DVD, or TV. This wasn’t a film that had to be seen on a big screen to get impact, and it didn’t have enough action to satisfy the mass-market. So it slipped off the viewing radar very quickly, until it found its spot at number 55 on the all-time 100 film flops, losing the backers around $70,000,000.

Just been watching…(77)

The Winslow Boy (1999)

This is not the only adaptation of the Rattigan play of the same name, but it is by far the best one. That is helped by a superb script from David Mamet, who also directed the film with consummate skill. Then there is the casting, with a breathtaking array of some of the finest British actors on display. Add the wonderful costume, convincing sets, and the compelling original (based on true events) story, and this film is a sheer wonder, from start to finish. I have seen it at least three times, and it is so good, I would happily watch it again next week.

The story itself is simple, but complex in the telling. Set not long before WW1, in 1911, we follow the life of a well-to-do middle class banker and his family, in London. His oldest child, a daughter, is involved with the Suffragettes, and is a ‘modern’ woman, with political opinions, and a feisty attitude. She is engaged to be married to an officer in the Household Cavalry. His older son is at Oxford University, but showing little aptitude for his studies. The youngest son, the Winslow Boy of the title, has just started at the prestigious Naval College, Osbourne, and is the apple of his father’s eye. Just before Christmas, the boy, Ronnie, appears in the garden of the house. He has been expelled from the Naval College, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order, from another cadet.

When his father believes his story that he is innocent, this starts a chain of events that all but destroy the family, taking them to the brink of bankruptcy, and altering the destinies of both older children irrevocably. Unable to secure satisfaction from the Admiralty, Mr Winslow embarks on the lengthy, and costly, legal process of taking The Crown to court. He hopes to secure a proper trial for his son. Even though it is accepted that he can never return to the Naval College, he is determined to prove Ronnie’s innocence in a public court. To do so, he engages the services of one of the best barristers in Britain, the haughty Sir Robert Morton, who agrees to take on the case. Morton is also a Member of Parliament, and he sees the opportunity to embarrass the government, at the same time as securing the boy’s innocence.

The film shows no courtroom scenes. This in itself is a stroke of genius, as the viewer must chart the progress by the reaction of the family, the journalists, and the general public. This is shown in newspapers, family discussions, and scenes from The House of Commons. As their comfortable lives begin to unravel, the family starts to question the point of the proceedings, and Mrs Winslow is close to despair, following the reduced financial circumstances of her household. If you think this doesn’t sound like much of a film, then I have to tell you that you are very wrong. It is one of the best historical dramas ever committed to the screen, with a cast that is at the top of its game. I think it is the best film ever made, in this particular genre.

Nigel Hawthorne, as the determined Mr Winslow. Flawless.
Jeremy Northam, as the complex Sir Robert. Beyond flawless.
Gemma Jones, as the troubled Mrs Winslow. Flawless
Rebecca Pidgeon, as Catherine, the ‘political’ daughter. Flawless.
All the other cast members. Flawless.
Period feel. Flawless.
Costume. Flawless.
Script. Flawless.

This film definitely deserves a wider audience, and to be better appreciated. Jeremy Northam is one of the finest actors of his generation, given the right part. Gemma Jones was born to act in ‘period’, and Nigel Hawthorne delivers a nuance in his acting that is a joy to behold. Rebecca Pidgeon looks so convincing, you could almost believe that she lived through that period.

As you can tell, I like this one a lot. I can’t get the official trailer, but here’s a scene.

Retro Review: Bringing Out The Dead (1999)

Most people can name a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Anything from ‘Raging Bull’, to ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Goodfellas’, or ‘The Departed’. He is one of the best-known modern film makers, all over the world. But some of his films are less well-known, and rarely featured or discussed on blogs. This is one of those.

As regular readers will know, I worked as an EMT in London for 22 years. Few films have ever been made about the work of EMTs and Paramedics, and even fewer about how that job might affect them. Before this film, ambulance crews generally featured in passing; removing bodies, treating stars whose characters had been injured, or being told to ‘hurry up’ as they arrived at a scene. In British films like the ‘Carry On’ comedies, they were often lampooned as being ineffective or simply providing transport on the orders of doctors and nurses. This tradition was continued in the American comedy ‘Mother, Juggs, and Speed’ (1976), where competing private ambulance companies are shown literally fighting over the lucrative patients.

Then we got this wonderful film. Starring Nicholas Cage acting instead of just shouting, the reliable John Goodman, Patricia Arquette, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore. Based on the novel of the same name, and written for the screen by Paul Schrader, this dared to look at the realities of the job. The pressures, the physical and mental difficulties, and the long-lasting psychological effects of doing it. Believe me, this gets it right. The inconsistencies of working with different partners, the sheer difficulty of physically carrying and treating so many people during a shift, and the way the job affects different people, in so many different ways. Never has ‘the job’ been so well portrayed on film.

Despite some slightly exaggerated drama, and a running theme involving a fantasy, this overlooked film is a gem. It delves into the lives and minds of people often taken for granted, as they just arrive at the scenes of any medical emergency, crime scene, accident, or disaster. Everyone thinks they just cope. And they do of course.

After all, it’s just a job. Or is it?

This film received many great reviews, including the maximum four stars from the distinguished Roger Ebert. Despite those, it was a complete failure at the box office, and lost millions. It seems that people don’t really want to see the darker side of the emergency services. Highly recommended.

One film, two versions: Gloria

Remakes are not restricted to foreign language films of course. When the industry runs out of ideas, and has made the latest one of the seemingly endless sequels to a once-decent slasher film, they turn to the back catalogue of the film industry, and poach a story from the archives.
(OK, not poach. They generally pay for the rights, but you know what I mean. 🙂 )

In 1980, the distinguished actor and film-maker John Cassavetes directed his actress wife Gena Rowlands in a modern crime thriller. It was about the fifty-something girlfriend of a mobster in New York, and her struggle to protect a local young boy who is being hunted by the Mafia. They suspect he may have witnessed something, and has evidence that could harm them, so want to eliminate him. Following the brutal murders of every one of the boy’s family, Gloria goes on the run with him, later shocked to discover that she is now a suspect in the murders, and the kidnapping of the boy.

The film becomes an exciting crime thriller, with Gloria and the boy hunted down by the gangsters, and having to avoid capture by the police too. She calls upon all her strengths and past experiences to deal with the situation, proving herself to be tough and resourceful, despite the number of hit men being sent out to find her and the child. Rowlands is a wonderful actress who inhabits Gloria completely, so is totally believable in the role. The script is great, locations authentic, and the pacing is just right too. All in all, a very competent thriller, that deserves a lot more attention 38 years after it was released.

Nineteen years later, and along comes the remake. It looked good on paper. Sidney Lumet, one of my favourite directors. Sharon Stone, a good actress, and well chosen for the role. Jeremey Northam, a distinguished British actor, and the wonderful George C. Scott too! So, I just had to see it, didn’t I?
Well, they changed a lot of the story, that’s for sure. Stone was good, and the rest of the cast stood up, with reliable direction from Lumet. It was a decent stand-alone thriller that didn’t need that connection to 1980. But it was a different film, and should have been called something else, as it certainly didn’t do justice to the original.
Shame about that.

Significant Songs (139)

Praise You

The DJ/ Producer Fatboy Slim started his career as Norman Cook, part of the British group, The Housemartins. They had a big hit with ‘Happy Hour’, in 1986, but split two years later. Cook went on to form Beats International, and the rest of the band formed the moderately successful ‘The Beautiful South’, around the same time.

Norman Cook endured longer, marrying TV personality Zoe Ball, in 1999, as well as carving out a career as a renowned record producer and DJ that continues to this day. He constantly changed styles, and names, until he became established as Fatboy Slim, very much part of the British musical establishment.

I didn’t care too much for him, or his music, to be honest. I mostly found him quite irritating, and had never bought any of his records. Then in late 1999, I saw a video on TV. it was for his latest release, ‘Praise You’, and was directed by film-maker Spike Jonze. It had also reached the number one spot in the UK charts, and I found I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Cook is still working as a DJ, as well as writing and producing for other artists. In 2016, he performed at the Glastonbury Festival. But this was his finest hour, as far as I am concerned.

Significant Songs (128)

You Get What You Give

Following from the previous post about a band with a ‘one-hit wonder’ song, I got to thinking about similar songs that have endured in my mind over the years. There have been a few of these songs that bring to notice a previously unheard of vocalist or band, stick in your brain, and take your thoughts back to where you were, or what your life was like at the time.

In early 1999, my life was in a period of transition once again. I was living outside London, in Hertfordshire, in the soulless commuter town of Borehamwood. I spent a great deal of time on my own, listening to music, reading books, and watching films. This was long before I had a computer, and a time when I was learning to adjust to solitude once more.

I was watching a music programme on TV, and saw a performance by a new American band, New Radicals. I liked the song straight off, and thought that the gyrating front man had a good voice. The structure of the song seemed old-fashioned, but had great lyrics and a memorable chorus. In the middle of a lonely winter, it cheered me up no end. I wrote down the name of the song, and went to a record shop later that week to buy a copy. After that, I heard nothing about them at all, although their promotional video was often on television.

Once I had a laptop, I could do some research. New radicals only existed from 1997-1999. In essence, it was the work of one young man, Gregg Alexander. He wrote, produced, and sang the songs, using various other musicians and performers who came and went over those three years. He continued to work as a songwriter and occasional performer, and won an Emmy in 2003 for a song he wrote for Santana. I never heard another record by the band, and never bought one either.

But I still love to hear this one, and to reflect on a bleak winter in a very boring suburb.

Significant Songs (119)

I Try

In 1999, I heard a really soulful record on the car radio. It was sung by a woman, obviously American, with a husky voice that caught my attention immediately. As so often happens, I didn’t catch the name of the singer, or the title of the record. I had to wait over a week to hear it again, and that time I got the details. It was called ‘I Try’, by a woman named as Macy Gray.

It soon became a top ten hit in the UK, although it wasn’t released in the USA until the year after. I bought the CD of the album it came from, ‘On How Life Is.’ Despite some other good tracks, none really measured up to the power of that single release, or how I felt when I first heard it. This song won a Grammy award in 2001, and Gray went on to release six more albums, as well as appearing in quite a few films too.

She is still working today, having released her latest recordings in 2014. ‘I Try’ remains her biggest hit to date though, and the song that she is best known for.

Here is the official video.

Significant Songs (63)


I have been listening to Carlos Santana on and off, since the late 1960s. His distinctive guitar style and instrumental classics, have been a part of my life since I was a teenager. Unlike many musicians I admire he is actually older than me, by five years. This signifies his longevity in music, and the fact that he still records today is a tribute to his enduring quality. His classic ‘Soul Sacrifice’ was performed at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969, and he has never looked back since.

In 1970, his album ‘Abraxas’ set new standards for the fusion between Jazz and Latin American music, and still remains a wonderful recording, all these years later. He went on to much acclaim, and some interesting collaborations with other artists, from all musical genres. After a while, his popularity faded, and though he still recorded, he missed chart success, and his critical acclaim diminished.

This all changed in the late 1990s, when he teamed up with singer Rob Thomas, from the band Matchbox Twenty. They recorded the song ‘Smooth’, and it was accompanied by a new generation video, that not only put Santana back on the musical map, but also introduced him to a completely new audience. Despite the rock/funk vocal, Santana had lost none of his signature guitar style, or musical innovation. He was rewarded with a world-wide hit, and a renewed interest in his work, both old and new.
It is in every way, a modern classic. Please enjoy.

Ambulance stories (41)

Tuesday, 5th October, 1999.

I doubt many of you will remember that far back, but this was a bright and sunny day, though it was not very warm. I was on day shifts that week, the time when the rota arrived at a five-shift, Monday to Friday week, with hours of duty from 0800-1600. This meant that we were the third ambulance available at the small sub-station where I worked, just under the Westway flyover, behind Ladbroke Grove underground station.

As usual, the other two vehicles, that had started at 7am, were already out; it was a busy area, after all. We had arrived about twenty minutes early, allowing time to get changed, and have a cup of tea, before spending the day out and about in the vehicle. By 8am, we were checking the ambulance, making sure that we had enough equipment, sufficient fuel, and plenty of oxygen, ready for the day to come. I was to be the attendant that day, and my long-term partner would be driving. Not long after 8am, the emergency phone rang, indicating a message from Ambulance Control. I went to answer, expecting it to be a routine enquiry about the vehicle being in commission, which normally happened around this time. It was a job though, given to me as; ‘female fainted, Sainsbury’s car park, Ladbroke Grove.’ I went outside to tell my colleague, and he drove the vehicle out, as I operated the electric closure for the large doors. This location was very near to us, probably less than half a mile away.  We had not driven more than a few yards, when the radio button bleeped, and our call-sign was repeated, with some urgency. ‘The job has been updated, believed to be a large fire, possible train crash, please advise us on arrival’, was the new message.

As we turned right into St Mark’s Road, we could immediately see a pillar of smoke rising high into the sky, just at the far end. I had seen many fires, and some explosions, but I had never witnessed such a sight before. Ahead of us, fire engines were negotiating the small roundabout, sirens blaring, and we tagged on behind them. They headed straight for Barlby Road, which is across the tracks from Sainsbury’s, and was home to the grandly named ‘Northpole International Terminal’, where the new Eurostar Trains were often parked, and not far from Northpole Road, which had given it its name. We followed the appliances into a small service road, until we came to a large fence. The firemen jumped out, cut through the fence and nearby gate, and we followed them in.

I do not recall ever seeing a train up close, when it was not alongside a platform. The one I was now standing next to, was enormous, an Inter-City locomotive, that in my perception, seemed to facing the ‘wrong way’. Of immediate importance, was the fact that the engine compartment, and the large carriage behind, were blazing fiercely, flames and smoke ascending into the sky. The heat was incredible, and I immediately discarded my uniform anorak, for fear it would melt. Despite this, we saw a fireman place a ladder against the train, so he could climb up into the driver’s cabin, which seemed ridiculously high, from our viewpoint. We followed, and when we saw that the driver was dead, or at least beyond any help we could give, we went back down, away from the dangerously close flames, to look for other casualties. We had already requested all other available ambulances, and as first on scene, we had declared this to be a ‘major incident’. At that time, we had no idea how major it would turn out to be.

There is a protocol for this type of job. The first attendant becomes ‘incident officer’, until relieved. Casualties are not treated immediately, but are tagged with tie-on labels, indicating the severity of the injury. The most severe are tagged ‘Dead, or will die’, and are not treated at all. Walking wounded, and those able to assist others, are directed to a safe holding area, where they are immediately assessed, and placed into categories for removal to hospital. In theory, this is fine. On exercises, when nobody is actually dead, and all resources already in place, it is also fine. In reality, it is a living nightmare, where all preconceptions go out the window, and the human desire to help takes over. But we were experienced men, and we knew that we had to step up, and do the right thing. We were not about to wilt under pressure, as we had been to many serious incidents before, and we could remember how well we had coped previously.

But they had never been like this, and we had never been the only ones there.

I found an area of reasonable size, away from any danger, and began to place equipment there, also removing both trolley beds, and all other stretchers from the vehicle, to lay people on. I arranged the available blankets, oxygen and masks, burns dressings and bandages, and tie-on labels, ready for the anticipated large number of casualties. My colleague grabbed his equipment box, and a portable oxygen cylinder, and headed off towards the tracks, to see what he could do. I did not see him again, for almost five hours.

By now, we could clearly see that two trains were involved, the large Inter City train dwarfing what was left of a small commuter shuttle. Carriages and wreckage were everywhere, spread over the large terminal area, where large numbers of tracks met, on the eventual approach into Paddington Station, the main terminus for West London. There were small and large fires, with some carriages completely consumed by fierce blazes. Across Barlby Road, there was a small school, and the caretaker approached me, saying that he would open it, to use as a holding area for the emergency services. In the distance, we could see the car park wall of the large supermarket, and long ladders were being placed, to allow access from that side of the tracks. Transport Police had arrived, as well as many more fire engines, and heavy rescue appliances. Looking to my left, away from the main area of carnage, I saw a tall man wandering along the tracks in my direction. He looked dazed, and although smartly dressed, was in a filthy state. I thought at first that he was wearing a hat, and it had slipped off his head, resting on his left shoulder. I ran up to him, soon realising that this ‘hat’ was actually his scalp, and it had been torn off in the accident, barely still attached to his head. I sat him down, and bandaged his head, also giving him oxygen, as the black marks around his mouth indicated that he had probably inhaled smoke.

Behind him, I saw the terrifying spectacle of a crowd of people walking slowly towards me. They were all smoke-blackened, confused and shambling, and many had skin hanging from their limbs, burned off in the fierce fires. There was no screaming, nobody was hysterical or crying, and there was surprisingly little noise, other than the crackling of the flames. It was like a scene from a horror film, except that this was real.

Then help arrived.

Everything that had happened up to now, had lasted less than twenty minutes. It had already seemed like twenty hours to me. Ambulance crews from Fulham and St John’s Wood arrived, closely followed by many more. Within an hour, most of the available ambulances in the central area would be committed, as well as many from the Outer London areas, served by County Ambulance Services. I handed over my injured man, and showed the crews to the others that had already walked up to me. Most of the staff left immediately, to make their way into the wreckage, and help those unable to move. I stayed with a small group, that I nominated to run this small casualty clearing area, with the help of the local Police. Serious cases began to arrive, brought by stretcher. Assessments were made, labels tied on, and three distinct groups of patients began to form. There were those requiring immediate removal, to one of four nominated hospitals, and others who could receive intermediate treatment, and then wait at the school opposite. The third group were made as comfortable as possible, as they were not going anywhere. We were soon running out of the liquid covered burns dressings, and extra supplies of everything were on their way, from the main depot stations on the outskirts of London. The ambulances were in a long queue, like taxis on a rank, waiting to be called forward, to collect patients.

Then management arrived.

The London Ambulance service had no shortage of senior operational managers; from local supervisors, to Training School instructors, up to Divisional Commanders. They now arrived on scene, and taking a briefing from me, as first attendant, they took control of the incident. I was now superfluous. There were dozens of staff helping the injured, and the receiving station was working well. Things were getting into gear. The Transport Police were even setting up tents, and had already got a counsellor in attendance, for anyone who needed her.

The Ambulance Service had emptied its Training School of its classes, and brought the shocked trainees, in their pristine uniforms, along to the scene to help. I looked for something useful to do, and found a Fire Brigade officer nearby. He asked me if I had anything white, to use as markers. I got some pillowcases, and other things, like bandage tapes, and followed him towards the wrecked trains. He carried a small hand extinguisher, which he used occasionally, to put out some burning object. These objects turned out to be bodies, bits of bodies, and even tiny fragments of bodies. I marked each tragic pile with a piece of white cloth. They would all have to be collected, for later identification. I had seen and done a fair bit that morning, but that was definitely the worst, and I was glad when we completed this sad task.

By now, the only area not managed, was the traffic problem caused by the endless fleets of emergency vehicles, all trying to get access to the area. I decided that I would see if I could help with this. This would also give me a break from the unpleasantness around the tracks, and the chance to have a cigarette too. Walking the short distance uphill to Ladbroke Grove, I saw for the first time, just how huge this incident had become. The normally busy main road was closed to all but emergency traffic. There were helicopters above, and as far as the eye could see, a long line of waiting ambulances stretched southwards, almost as far as Notting Hill Gate, a mile away. I had never seen anything like it. There were vehicles from Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, and Essex; also London Ambulance vehicles from across the other side of the city, marked by their divisional colour patches. I also saw the equipment tenders, bringing the supplies from as far away as Ilford. Using my radio, I contacted staff at the casualty clearing area, and slowly began to send vehicles individually down to collect patients, but only as they were ready to travel, thus avoiding the previous congestion. I bumped into many old friends and colleagues in these extra vehicles; some I had not seen for years.

I don’t really remember how long I was there, but it seemed like an age to me. I was eventually summoned by radio, to return to Barlby Road. The majority of the injured had been removed, and as far as evacuation was concerned, things were quietening down. I was directed to a parked car, where I saw my crew-mate, sitting on the pavement. He was absolutely exhausted, and completely traumatised by the whole thing, as he had not stopped working at the scene for almost five hours. He seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown, so I got him into a staff car, and we went back to our base. By the time we arrived, it was almost 2pm, six hours since we had left, expecting to go to a lady who had fainted in Sainsbury’s car park. She had indeed fainted. It was as a result of seeing this train crash happen, as she parked her car against the far wall. I never did find out what happened to her.

We were taken to Fulham Ambulance Station, to participate in a debrief on the incident. The place was in a state of upheaval. Equipment and empty ambulances were everywhere, with trainees and Training Officers attempting to reassemble vehicles into operational order. Hundreds of items of kit were missing, even large trolley beds could not be located. Four hospitals would have to be scoured for these items, as well as the scene of the accident, eventually. In recognition of the work we had done that day, by being first on scene, we were given time off, and also referred to counselling, some time later. My colleague never really got over the horrors of it all, and later transferred to Yorkshire, hoping for a quieter life, working for the Ambulance Service there. He is still there to this day, but it is not really any more peaceful. I declined counselling, suspicious that they would use any information to get rid of me. As a well-known Union agitator, I was always conscious of not giving them the rope to hang me.

Some time afterwards, along with Fire Officers, Police Officers, and others, we were presented to The Queen, in the new Community Centre, in Barlby Road. This was supposed to be an honour, but for me, as a confirmed anti-Royalist, it was just a day off. We were given brand new uniforms to wear for the occasion, then we were told to hand them back afterwards. I declined to do this, but it shows the sort of people that we were working for then.

To this day, this remains as one of the worst ever rail disasters in British history, and the worst ever on the Western Main Line. Thirty one people died in the crash, and and 258 were injured, many seriously. Some will carry the scars of their burns or injuries for the rest of their lives. All will live with the mental scars; the victims, and those who did their best to help them on that day.